Wanqu's anonymous founder explains how automation, social media, and his unique experiences in Silicon Valley have helped grow his business.

Hello! Tell us about your background and what you're working on.

I'm W. I came to the United States from China to get my PhD in computer science. However, I quit my PhD program and ended up working as a software engineer at a startup in San Francisco.

Wanqu is my side project that I started in August 2014. The actual name for this side project is 湾区日报, which means "Bay Area Daily". It's pinyin of 湾区 (Bay Area).

Wanqu is actually a blog where I curate 5 English articles on tech and startups every day for Chinese readers. For each article, I come up with a Chinese title and a few sentences of comments in Chinese. It's a very simple formula. The articles (along with my comments) are distributed via 8 channels, e.g. social accounts, iOS push notifications, email newsletters, etc. That's it!

What's your audience like? How many people read your curated articles?

My audience is bilingual, speaking both Chinese and English. 50% of them live in China, 25% live in the US, 10% live in Taiwan, and 15% live in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the rest of the world. They work in tech industry. Most of them are makers (engineers / designers); many of them are startup founders; some of them are investors; and some of them are students. There are about 81,000 people following Wanqu across all content distribution channels.

I've been doing this thing for 844 days at the time of writing. I've curated 3,855 articles and written more than 800,000 words of Chinese comments over these 844 days.

The goal of this side project is not to make money or become my full-time job. However, I still need to have some financial reward to keep me motivated everyday, because I'm just yet another normal human-being that loves money :)

Wanqu brings me around $500 a month via iOS app in-app purchase, Google AdSense, sponsorship, different affiliate programs, and selling t-shirts.

How'd you get started with Wanqu?

I read a lot of online articles every day, especially tech and startup-related articles. Oftentimes my coworkers and I would trade good articles with each other. Of course, these articles are all in English. I wish I could have read more when I was in China a decade ago, so I would be smarter and better-informed now :)

My younger self would certainly love reading articles curated by someone who is a maker and who has good taste. So I thought, okay, maybe there are many young people in China like my younger self who are eager to learn tech/startup-related things but may need a little help.

I started Wanqu on August 6, 2014. I curated 5 articles using nFiles (my other side project that no one uses) — I just needed a simple web page. Then I posted the URL on a popular online forum, where I got some positive feedback. I did it again the following day and posted to the same forum. And again the third day.

By this point I still didn't have a domain name or a website. If you can read Chinese or you use Google Translate to read the comments on the forum, you can see that some people were asking me to add RSS or create social accounts so they can subscribe or follow. Then in the following days, I got a domain wanqu.co, set up a collection of static pages with Pelican, set up Weibo/Twitter/Facebook/WeChat accounts, and kept posting to the same forum. Gradually, it became a daily habit for me to curate articles. I grew my audience from the first batch and continued getting positive feedback.

At the end of August 2014, I switched to WordPress for Wanqu's website. And in March 2015, I built the whole website from scratch using Python / Django / Postgres, which is the tech stack that I'm super familiar with. As you can see, I hadn't written a single line of code until I ran Wanqu for 8 months!

By this point, I knew that I wanted to keep Wanqu afloat for as long as possible. I tried to automate the whole publishing and content distribution process with code, so I could focus more on the things that can't be automated: reading articles and writing comments in Chinese.

In June 2015, I built and launched the iOS app for Wanqu (in Swift).

How'd you find the time and funding to build everything? What do your automation processes look like, and what tech do you use?

As I said above, I didn't write a single line of code in the first 8 months of Wanqu. In the first 8 months, I "built" Wanqu simply by forming a habit to curate 5 articles.

Every evening after dinner, I sat down and started to read articles from Pocket, which were added during the day time. Then I used WordPress admin to create a new post for each article and wrote comments in Chinese. Once I got 5 articles ready, I would manually log into every single social account to type up messages. The whole process took me 2 to 3 hours. It was time consuming, but I'm glad that I made it through these 8 months.

Sometimes I was busy or super overwhelmed by my day job, so I might skip curating any articles for 1-2 days. Readers would send me emails to ask what happened, and I considered this to be a signal that I was providing some value to people :)

Then I built the whole website from scratch over a weekend in March 2015. It was a super simple (and ugly) CMS actually. In the following several weekends, I added more and more code to optimize my publishing workflow. I built a bot using Slack/Hubot to help my day-to-day operation. Every evening after dinner, I start to read articles from Pocket as well. Then I talk to Slack, like this:

Slack Chat

The bot extracts most of the metadata (e.g. url slug, article link) and creates a new post in my Django backend. Then I use the bot as a CMS where I type up the Chinese comments:

Chinese Slack Chat

Once I tell the bot that the article is ready, it'll also post messages to Weibo, Twitter, and Facebook. Once I finish curating all of the 5 articles, I'll tell the bot and it'll send out push notifications to users of both iOS app and the Chrome browser. I use MailChimp's RSS-driven campaign to schedule sending emails to all of the email subscribers.

As you can see, this Slack-enabled CMS saves me a lot of time. I'm an engineer and I'm comfortable with command line operations. The whole publishing and content distribution process takes me 1 to 2 hours now, which is faster than before.

I also use the Slack bot to deploy the website/API server and all the back-end code. All I need to do is type "wq deploy" and wait for 1-2 minutes. It's so convenient and enjoyable that I ship small improvements several times every evening after I push out the contents to my readers, or 20-30 times a day during weekends.

Deploy Commands

I learned Swift then built and launched Wanqu's iOS app over a weekend in early June 2015. I was shameless to ship a super ugly version to App Store. Then I released a new version almost every week until it reached a stable state recently. The main purpose of the app is to have push notification support, so the iOS user can get my curated articles immediately when they are available.

In terms of time investment in Wanqu, I would say that I spent 2-3 hours/day for curating articles in the early days and 1-2 hours/day now, thanks to the automation stuff I built. I would use fragmented spare time to write code and ship features, even when I only had 10 minutes or 15 minutes to spare. When I was in a good mood, I would spend bigger chunks of time over weekends to write a lot of code, e.g. an entire Saturday afternoon.

Building and operating Wanqu doesn't require a lot of money. I spent $499 to hire someone from 99designs to design my logo and another $694.11 every month to operate the whole thing. What's in $694.11?

  • $94.11/month is for server fees on DigitalOcean + Apple's iOS developer membership + domain names + SSL cert.
  • $600/month is for my time. I spend 2 hours per day on average on Wanqu, and I'm willing to take the minimum wage of California, which is $10. Haha ~

How have you attracted users and grown Wanqu?

As I said, I "launched" Wanqu on an online forum on August 6, 2014. I posted the curated articles there for 20 days or so, until I realized that I had to build my own audience in channels that I have more control over, e.g. social accounts or mailing list, instead of an online forum.

After I set up all content distribution channels, the growth of audience is slow but steady, mostly via word-of-mouth. Here's a snapshot of all major channels I have right now and the number of followers:

I don't plan to turn Wanqu into my full-time job. I only want to keep it running sustainably for as long as possible. Therefore, I haven't been aggressively growing the audience size. But I've done some interesting things nonetheless:

  • Scheduled social contents. I built a social sharing system that is similar to Buffer, which schedules send old curated articles to Weibo, Twitter and Facebook every hour, with certain probability. On average, there are 20-30 updates on my social accounts everyday. Keeping social accounts active is very important for growing your audience, due to social platforms' recommendation algorithms.
  • I'm very transparent on what I'm doing and why I'm doing. I make all operating metrics public (e.g. followers of all content distribution channels, # of downloads of iOS app, # of in-app purchase, expense...). I also wrote some blog posts to explain how I build Wanqu from an engineer's point of view. It seems that people love learning these kinds of things. The side effect of such transparency is to build trust with my readers.
  • AMP pages. Yes, Wanqu has AMP pages. It helps a little bit with SEO.
  • Use iOS app update messages to tell stories. For each new app release, I write fun anecdotes of working in Silicon Valley :)
  • Every interaction with my readers is a marketing opportunity. I try my best to reply to incoming emails from my readers, but as you know, no one can reply to every single email as your audience grows bigger and bigger.
  • Curate good articles, write good comments, and share good things with my audience. If you do good deeds and truly make the world a better place, then people will spread the word for you. Word-of-mouth is the best marketing channel ever.

The website gets about 110K-130K pageviews per month and grows slowly:

Pageviews Graph

There were 23,780 downloads of the Wanqu iOS app, where 1,628 people paid $3.99 for the in-app purchase to buy me a half cup of coffee :)

What's the story behind your revenue?

I've been exploring different monetization methods for Wanqu, but the goal is just to make enough money to keep me motivated (as opposed to "quit my job" or "make me rich"-type of money).

I put Google Adsense on the website since the very beginning. However, the ads provide a very poor experience to my readers and do very poor targeting. I've made $1400 so far over the course of 2 years.

I put Google AdMob in the Wanqu iOS app, which displays a banner ad at the bottom of most screens for free-tier users. But users can pay $3.99 to remove the ad and buy me a half cup of coffee :) The money Google AdMob brought me is marginal, less than $150 in total. There are 1,628 in-app purchases, however, which is way beyond my expectations.

I've also join affiliate programs from Amazon, Bluehost, 99designs, and DigitalOcean. In total, these affiliates have brought me $1,500 or so.

I also sell T-shirts from Teespring, but it's not ideal, as the shipping fee is too high for most of my audience in China. I've made probably $100 or so from selling t-shirts in total.

I just started with sponsorships in November 2016. The idea is similar to Daring Fireball's sponsorship program: for a specific period of time, there is only one sponsor, and the ads will be delivered to all content distribution channels. This month, I got two real sponsors from China and I made $400 in total. When there's no sponsor, I would do ads for my affiliate programs or selling t-shirts :)

Finally, people can donate to Wanqu via PayPal, Stripe, or Alipay. I've gotten ~$300 in donations so far.

In total, I should be able to make at least $500 per month with the recent addition of sponsorships. I'm happy with the result, considering that I run Wanqu part-time and alone. As I said, the expense of running Wanqu is $694.11 per month, so I still have work to do to break even :)

If you make it this far reading this interview and you want to reach out to the elite cohort of Chinese tech people around the world, you should consider sponsoring Wanqu. Just shoot me email for details: hi@wanqu.co

What are your goals for the future?

My goal is simple: keep running Wanqu as long as possible. It's a good way to push my readers and myself to read more, so we become smarter and better informed day by day. I've gotten so many thank-you letters from my readers, and I feel that I'm kind of useful to this world now :)

Of course, there are challenges.

  1. There's a well-known wall for readers in China that blocks access to many articles I curate. For example, readers in China can't read articles from Medium, NYTimes, and Blogger without setting up a VPN.
  2. As I get older, I'll have more commitments to my family and work. I hope that I will be able to squeeze in enough time to keep running Wanqu.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

I'd reduce distractions as much as possible, e.g. worrying less about messages from trolls sent to my social accounts. Yes, internet trolls are without borders. They are real. They exist to annoy you, once you get to a certain amount of social followers. Use whatever tools you have to block them and then move on to do actual meaningful work, which for me is to curate good articles for my readers.

The only bottleneck for Wanqu is myself. I need to keep asking myself to focus, focus, focus. In order to stay focused and minimize distractions, I try to keep myself anonymous. Who am I is not important to real readers who just want to read quality articles. Personally, I'm so inspired by Startup L. Jackson: "could someone's ideas get traction when it wasn't clear if the speaker was a state-school dropout or someone with a $100 million checkbook?"

What do you think your biggest advantages have been to help you succeed?

I don't consider Wanqu to be successful so far. If there were one or two future Chinese Mark Zuckerbergs who are inspired by Wanqu (and articles I curate), then Wanqu would be considered successful :)

I think I do stand at a unique position to do this article curation thing:

I'm a maker, which is a fancy way to say that I'm a software engineer in a real company :) As the tagline of Wanqu says: "By makers, for makers". I curate content for makers as a maker myself. I don't think a non-maker editor knows what makers want to read.

I like reading and writing. Yes, makers need to read things curated by other makers. The problem is, most makers don't like writing. So, I get to do things that other makers don't want to do.

I happen to have the skillsets that are just enough to build the website, iOS app, and the automation systems. But these are nice-to-have things. For Wanqu, the most important part is good content (5 curated articles + my comments everyday). Anything else is secondary.

Finally, I'm not a perfectionist. Initially, I put the curated articles in ugly pages and shared them on the internet, and I thought that was totally fine. Then I got positive feedback. Next, I built a half-baked website over a weekend and launched it, and I thought that was fine. Then I iterated a lot. Next, I built a hello-world-level iOS app over a weekend and launched it to App Store, and I thought that was fine. Then again, I got to iterate a lot. In other words, I'm shameless, but I think that's fine for a side project.

What advice would you share with aspiring indie hackers?

Think big. Start small. Act fast.

Where can we learn more?

Want to contact me? (You can address me as "W".) Email hi@wanqu.co.

Want to follow Wanqu? Visit the Wanqu website wanqu.co, or follow via Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, WeChat, the email newsletter, RSS, or the iOS app.

If you can read Chinese or you can tolerate the translation quality of Google Translate, here are some blog posts I wrote in Chinese:

You can also reach me via the comment section below:

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